One play does not define a career, especially in the case of Tommy Henrich. The five-time All-Star was one of the mainstays of a Yankee dynasty from yesteryear but is always remembered for a play in which he actually struck out swinging for the apparent last out.
It came during the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 1941 World Series. The Brooklyn Dodgers led 4-3 and when the Yankee right fielder swung and missed at a low curveball. Dodger’s catcher Mickey Owen couldn’t handle the pitch and it got by him as Henrich scampered to first base. Low and behold, the Bronx Bombers rallied and took a 3-1 lead in the Series, wrapping it up the next game and breaking hearts all over Flatbush.
The Dayton, Ohio native passed away on Monday at the age of 96 in his hometown. He made his major league debut on May 11, 1937 and played 11 seasons, all for the Yankees. He missed three years serving in the Coast Guard during World War II (1943 through 1945) and won five rings in the Bronx.
“Tommy was a darn good ballplayer and teammate,” former Yankee Yogi Berra said. “He always took being a Yankee to heart. He won a lot of championships and did whatever he could do to help us win. When I came up in 1947, he taught me little nuances about playing the outfield. Being around Tommy made you feel good, whether playing cards or listening to him sing with that great voice. He was a proud man, and if you knew him, he made you proud too.”
Although Henrich was a very productive player his first few years in the league, he broke out in 1941 with a career-high 31 home runs and made the All-Star team a year later. After the war, Henrich returned and became an integral part of a very successful club. With a superstar like Joe DiMaggio playing next to him, it was easy to remain in the background, something not lost on his teammates.
“The called him “Old Reliable” and he was just that,” said Jerry Coleman, who played two years with Henrich. “My first year with him was 1949 and it seemed like every home run he hit won the game. His career stats might not show it (.282 career batting average), but he was a great clutch player. When he hit, it counted. He was also a fine defensive player in the outfield.”
That same year, Henrich was instrumental in the Yankees winning another pennant in a close American League race and hit the first walk-off home run in World Series history. The Yankees and Dodgers were locked in a scoreless tie when Henrich led off the bottom of the ninth inning against Don Newcombe. He launched the 2-0 delivery into the stands and sent the crowd home happy. He also starred in Game 5 as the Yanks won yet another Fall Classic.
Although Henrich was named to the All-Star squad in 1950, he retired after the season. Playing through injuries, he hit only .272 with 6 home runs and 34 RBI. Henrich went on to become a coach for the Yankees, New York Giants and Detroit Tigers.
Yes, Henrich did many great things on the baseball diamond, so many in fact that a strikeout can be included in that list.